The Crane Wife – Asking Too Much From Stories

There are times when one suddenly sees or understands an old familiar tale in a new light.  Yesterday was one of those  days.

My old friend, Storyteller Orunumamu says that a feather is a wish or a message from a bird. I haven’t  thought of Orunamamu in a long time, nor had I thought of the Japanese folk tale Tsru no On-gaeShi, The Crane Wife. Perhaps cranes came flying into my mind because one of the first things I heard when I woke up was the cacophony of hundreds of geese circling the river and thought first the geese come, and soon the cranes will arrive on their southward migration.

I spent much of the  rest of the day revisiting resources and perspectives I’ve been compiling on the use of story and narrative in organizational and business settings.  Read one hundred current articles, blog posts, and assorted tweets on storytelling in business and it is soon becomes apparent that fire has been rediscovered; we are all storytellers and that our personal and business fortunes depend on our ability to tell the right stories  to the right people, for the right purpose, at the right time.  Storyteller to the bone that I am, I have to agree.

By evening, I was bushed, but managed to give myself some sage advice. Get ‘off the clock,’ ditch all agendas and let my mind wander where it will.  I accepted an invitation to spend an hour in the underground sanctuary of a friend’s kiva, lit some candles picked up a drum and began a rhythmic beat.  Some time later, the feather of the Crane Wife story came drifting into my mind.

A poor sail maker pulls an arrow from a wounded crane.  Later that day he returns home to find a beautiful young woman tending his house.  She has with her  a small bag of rice, that strangely is always full, providing sustenance for the marriage that follows. Life is good with a full belly and a loving wife, but the sail maker’s needs steadily increase. His wife retreats behind a screen and sets to work weaving a marvelous sail with instructions that her husband must never look behind the screen while she is working nor must he ever ask her to make another.  The sail, unequaled in it’s beauty and strength  fetches a great price which sustains the couple for a spell. But the first promise is broken and the man asks for just one more sail. but then another, and another and ‘just one more.’ Each time, his wife emerges from behind the screen looking more and more exhausted  And of course, as we naturally anticipate with this and similar stories, eventually the husband takes a peep behind the screen. He sees his wife the in her true form – a crane, pulling out her feathers to weave into the fabric of the sail.  Having been revealed,  she flies off, leaving a half finished cloth as a reminder of their time together.

I’ve always heard this story as a  rather simple tale about the consequences of wanting too much.  But perhaps because I’d spent the day as I had, it occurred to me that yes, stories serve us and serve us well.  But ask too much of them, put them to work and keep them working without understanding their true nature, strip them of mystery, prescribe them as quick boosts for performance or remedies for all that ails the bottom line, and our beautiful partner will fly off on wounded wings. Perhaps it’s not quite as easy as take two parables and a a dose of the Hero’s Journey and call me in the morning.  Ah, The Crane Wife–  a cautionary tale for the Business of Storytelling in Business!

I set the drum down, thankful for the gift of story,  blew out the candles, and walked home under the canopy of a crisp New Mexico night sky.
This morning, a mockingbird (Sagebrush Thrasher) lands on my back fence and repeats a loud and insistent refrain. Now just what was that bird trying to tell me?  Ah, but that’s another story, the story of Ivan,Vasilly and the Language of the Birds.



  1. Well said, Bob. This is why I teach people to BE a storyteller, rather than teach them the techniques of telling. The magic and power of storytelling which business people want to co-opt is not available to those who want a quick fix from reading a list of five tips. It takes an attitude and approach first, which runs deeper than a faddish technique, though some can click into that relatively quickly.

  2. Excellent post and a timely reminder that the voracious appetite of the corporate world (and its business publishing behemoth) for new fads and processes — dancing elephants, empty raincoats, moving cheese, effective habits — first lionizes, then devours as it passes onward. Perhaps we should all wish that corporate storytelling enjoys “success — but not too much success.” Great post!

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